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Edmund Burke: His thoughts are relevant to our present discontents

Of all the great British political thinkers, only Burke has any present currency. Hobbes and Locke both possessed arguably more penetrating minds, and Mill wrote on issues that are more germane to our current preoccupations. Yet, for all their superiority of intellectual equipment or apparent relevance, these writers are not living presences in our political culture in the way that Burke, however tenuously, still seems to be. Modern politicians still reflect on Burke, and the more literate among them (such as Jesse Norman) even still write about him. By contrast, Hobbes and Locke are firmly imprisoned in the Schools. Academics love to pore over their subtleties, so vividly practical as they were in the 17th century, so utterly estranged as they now are from any present urgency.  Backroom policy aides are occasionally interested in Mill, but I have never met a practising politician who was. And fascinating political thinkers such as Harrington, Selden, Bolingbroke, Hume, Coleridge and Arnold are today all but forgotten even by academics. Why should it be that Burke alone still has the power to engage, even if only infrequently, the current political class? And what does that enduring power tell us about the nature and scope of Burke's achievement?

The probing and subtle first volume of David Bromwich's The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence (a second volume will consider his writings on India and France) helps us glimpse the sources of Burke's surprising longevity. Bromwich begins by offering sharply intelligent readings of the two books Burke published in the 1750s: his disingenuous imitation of Bolingbroke in A Vindication of Natural Society, and his influential treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Bromwich then moves on to consider the more narrowly political writings generated by three convulsions of the British body politic in the late 1760s and 1770s: first, the controversy surrounding John Wilkes and the conflict between the rights of parliament and the prerogative of the Crown it set in train; second, the conflict with the American colonies and the loss of Britain's western empire; and finally the Gordon Riots of 1780 and the issues of representation and popular sovereignty which they raised.

As Bromwich points out when explaining his particular angle of approach, his focus is on Burke's ideas as they found expression in his speeches and writings. He aspires to grasp "the originality and continuities of Burke's thinking and not the rise and fall of his fortunes" (those who feel a need to plot the circumstances of Burke's day-to-day life should consult F.P. Lock's recent two-volume biography from OUP, which is unlikely soon to be surpassed on that score); and he hopes also to provide a more adequate account of "the scope and depth" of Burke's genius for those who are presently acquainted only with Reflections on the Revolution in France and a handful of speeches. However, that does not mean that Bromwich has confined himself to a seriatim parsing of what we might call the propositional content of Burke's major writings. Bromwich is also concerned to bring out how Burke's conception of his role as a public moralist shaped and conditioned his political interventions. 

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RBHoughton
August 12th, 2014
3:08 AM
Burke took the King's shilling and did his PR for him. His unforgivable offence was the untutored diatribe against the French Revolution which was admirably refuted by Sir James Macintosh. Had he not influenced the Commons, we might today all be living happily under genuine democratic governments. In UK there is a fireworks party on 5th November rejoicing the defeat of Catholicism. That should be rededicated to the horrible Burke and effigies of him burned in remembrance of what he has done to us all.

Anonymous
August 3rd, 2014
9:08 PM
One would not expect Burke to influence the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Would that either Locke or Nozick cast a shadow half the length of Ayn Rand.

R. Kevin Hill
July 31st, 2014
1:07 AM
I think the opening remark doesn't really capture what's going on in the US. If anything, Locke casts a far longer shadow than Burke, by way of Nozick's influence on the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.

S B Benjamin
July 30th, 2014
2:07 PM
There is no question that this book is a must read. Nevertheless, I am not so sure that Burke is an attendant to the 21st Century, especially in the United States of America. That he is relevant, there is no doubt. Whether or not he is known by the Americans and resorted to by those active in politics (and that means all, except for the famous 'low-information' voters) I am not so sure. He permeates in instinct but then so does Hobbes, most especially, and Locke, academically so. Hobbes is the quintessential American, albeit unconsciously so. And that is owing to none other than John Adams who channelled him into the the very fabric of the American spirit; namely, their constitution.

Anonymous
July 30th, 2014
6:07 AM
I haven't forgotten Coleridge. Nor Hume. Who is this fellow who makes pronouncements about how the intellectual communities of the world are thinking and what they are interested in. And what they are still interested in? Any polls taken? What presumptive authority speaks?

Anonymous
June 30th, 2014
8:06 PM
David Bromwich exemplifies the intellectual life in its beautiful and its sublime aspects, as only genius can do.

Anonymous
June 29th, 2014
8:06 PM
As far as this review attempts to represent a 500 page book, it does so accurately and with brilliant incisiveness. And it manages to give readers a momentary exposure to three first-rate intelligences at work.

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